Blogs > Jim Loewen > Going Postal History

Oct 4, 2011 11:55 pm


Going Postal History



Just now, your local post office—easier to find than it will be next year, when the Postal Service plans to close as many as 3,600—features a stamp of Owney, a dog.  He appeared in the Albany, NY, post office in 1888, where "clerks took a liking to him," according to the history that the USPS supplies on the back of each sheet of Owney stamps. 

Owney followed mailbags onto trains, where Railway Mail Service employees considered him their good-luck charm.  As Owney traveled the country, clerks affixed medals and tags to his collar to document his travels.

The Postal Service goes on to tell how the Postmaster General John Wanamaker gave Owney "a special dog-sized jacket to help him display them all."  He wound up with between 400 and 1,000 tags, far more than could fit on the jacket.  Later, Owney "toured the world by steamer and became an icon of American postal lore."  The account on the stamps ends with this happy conclusion:  "Today he enjoys a place of honor at the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C." 

Such a cheerful story.  In those years (and for decades thereafter), clerks rode the rails, sorting the mail in special cars while the train was moving.  Trains picked up more mail without even stopping from trackside poles.  The system was very efficient.  And the story gets even happier:  in an era when train wrecks were all too common, no train Owney rode was ever in a wreck.  Postal workers came to see him as a good luck charm.  During his tour around the world in 1895, he met the emperor of Japan among other notables.  Briefly, he was the most famous dog in the world and lent his charisma to dog shows by making guest appearances. 

But that's not the full story. 

In April 1897, the Superintendent of the Chicago mail district forbade Owney from riding the rails any more.  His edict was unkind:

If the dog were in any wise remarkable for his intelligence, there might be some reason for paying attention to him.  He is only a mongrel cur, which has been petted until the thing has become disgusting.  His riding around on the postal cars distracts the attention of the clerks, takes up the time of employees at stations in showing him around, and it is about time he is kicked out.

Nevertheless, Owney took one final ride.  On June 11, 1897, now perhaps seveenteen years old, Owney took the rails to Toledo.  While he was there, a postal clerk tried to chain him for a photo opportunity, and Owney bit him.  The postmaster had a local gendarme shoot him, still chained. 

The postal service knows the full story, of course.  So does the Smithsonian, which now displays Owney at its Postal Museum.  But apparently the stamp-buying public does not need to know.  Neither does the museum-going public.  The museum displays Owney in a prime location, near the entrance, where no visitor can easily miss him.  It used a $10,300 grant and additional donations to pay for his makeover, just in time for the new stamp.  He got a new hand-sculpted snout, new eyes and claws, and pieces of coyote pelt to patch up some bald spots.  He gets a case all his own, next to a railway mail car, and a total of three different labels—but none tell anything bad.  Nor does "Owney the Railway Mail Service Mascot"—Owney's main page at the Postal Museum website — say a thing about his unfortunate demise (http://postalmuseum.si.edu/owney/index.html).  In an obscure corner of its website (http://postalmuseum.si.edu/owney/Postmasters_Advocate_Owney_article-2011-04.pdf, 9/2011), Nancy A. Pope, Postal Museum historian, tells all, although her account of Owney's demise differs from mine in a few details.  But there is no way to get from Owney’s page to Pope's article. 

"Relax, Loewen," some folks may say.  "You’re going postal.  It's just a dog, for heaven’s sake!"  Indeed, Owney was "just a dog"—and now just a stuffed dog.  But where do we draw the line?  Do we tell the unpleasant truths about, say, Woodrow Wilson?  He's long been a favorite of historians:  when Arthur M. Schlesinger asked 75 leading historians to rank the presidents in 1962, they listed Wilson fourth, ahead of Jefferson.  So let's write postal history about Wilson.  And so it is that only two of eighteen textbooks that I surveyed for Lies My Teacher Told Me even mention that Wilson authorized a naval blockade of the Soviet Union and sent troops to Archangel, Murmansk, and Vladivostok to help overthrow the Russian Revolution, in concert with Japan, Great Britain, and France.  Admitting this misadventure might cast a complexifying cloud on the sunny statement that the U.S.S.R. started the Cold War in 1946. 

The unnamed and unknown minions who really write our K-12 U.S. history textbooks write postal history about almost everything.  When discussing the Vietnam War, for instance, most never mention the My Lai massacre; only one of eighteen treats it as an example of a class of events.  My Lai was no more sunny than Owney's bullet.  Can textbooks be right to leave out the cloudy parts of the Vietnam War?  Can students understand the anti-war movement in such a vacuum?  In their important book on historiography After the Fact, James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle agree that My Lai exemplified a larger phenomenon.  Lytle told me, “The American strategy had atrocity built into it.”  They also argue that My Lai “became a defining moment in the public’s perception of the war.”  But their textbook for high school students never mentions My Lai. 

George W. Bush likewise supplied postal history analysis.  Nine days after the 9/11/2001 attacks, he gave Congress his answer to the important question, why did terrorists strike the Pentagon and the World Trade Center:

Americans are asking, why do they hate us?  They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government.  Their leaders are self-appointed.  They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

What a sunny thought:  they hate us because we are good! 

Research by journalist James Fallows pushed him to critique this line of rhetoric:  "The soldiers, spies, academics, and diplomats I have interviewed are unanimous in saying that 'They hate us for who we are' is dangerous claptrap."  Fallows called this ideology "lazily self-justifying and self-deluding."  Later, the Pentagon itself pointed out, "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather they hate our policies." 

Some history museums—especially small ones, like historic houses—supply postal history too.  When I toured Wheatfield, James Buchanan's mansion in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, staff members specifically denied both Buchanan's homosexuality and his pro-slavery stance.  Yet both are not only fact but also related.  So tourists who visited Wheatland left stupider about Buchanan than when they had arrived.  Today the Wheatland website and the National Park Service site about Wheatland merely omit these crucial facts.  Recently, two major museums in San Francisco—the Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum—both mounted important exhibits about Gertrude Stein.  Neither found it necessary to state clearly that Stein was a Nazi sympathizer, according to Mark Karlin of Truthout.  "Among the many fascinating aspects of the Stein story,” the art museum explained, “the museum hasn't seen this particular topic as especially germane to our project.”  The Jewish museum, too, hid behind the claim that her Nazi sympathies weren’t relevant to the art or other objects they displayed.  Unfortunately, the curators of the Stein exhibit at the Jewish museum also never made her Nazi leanings clear in their hour-long opening lecture.  It’s hard to give adequate attention to such unfortunate matters—like Owney’s death—while valorizing Stein (and her lover, Alice B. Toklas)—or Owney. 

Deliberate omission is a slippery slope.  We need to include Owney's bullet—and the bad behavior that led to his getting it—if we teach about Owney at all.  There is no safe resting point, no bright line that tells us which truths we can tell, which we must cover up.  Americans need to know about our war on the U.S.S.R.  We need to face what we did in Vietnam—all of it.  We need to understand that Buchanan's position in the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party derived in part from his relationship with William Rufus King, slaveowner and senator from Alabama.  We need to realize that people can be Jewish (and homosexual) and still be pro-Hitler.

Postal history won’t do.  Indeed, because it causes us to be ignorant when we think we know, postal history is worse than no history at all. 

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Copyright James Loewen




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